Saturday 18 November 2017

Why the fat should not be in the fire on obesity

Dr Francis Finucane

RTE's 'Operation Transformation' does a tremendous amount of good in raising awareness of overweight and obesity. The ratings speak for themselves and the level of public engagement and participation in their community-based initiatives is impressive and undoubtedly beneficial. The addition of a dietitian and a GP to the expert panel has enhanced significantly the quality of the clinical advice now given to the show's participants.

However, aspects of the show diminish it and may even be counterproductive and harmful. Firstly, interactions with the "leaders" sometimes seem humiliating. There is a pervading sense that a person's moral strength, work ethic, intelligence and overall contribution to society are proportional to how much excess fat they carry. This stigmatises obesity and reinforces negative stereotypes about obese people. A few weeks ago, participants on the show were chastised by a fireman for being harder to rescue than if they were thin. Their fatness was a moral failure, a selfish lack of discipline and self-control and a burden on the fire service and on society. This will undoubtedly have caused distress to some people affected by obesity. Also, the willing acceptance of humiliation as part of a weight loss process by participants who volunteer for the show should not justify that humiliation. Of course, overweight and obese people need to eat healthier and be more physically active, but shouting at them for being too fat just doesn't work.

We don't humiliate people with traumatic brain injury after drink driving, or HIV after unprotected sex, yet we are uniquely intolerant and judgemental of the fatness that arises from the folly of overeating. Little is made of the scientific certainty that some people find it much harder than others to avoid being fat and that changes in our environment have driven the obesity epidemic, not changes in how responsible we all are. Rather than seeing obesity simply as a burden on society caused by the gluttony and sloth of irresponsible individuals, it might serve us well to see it as a burden on affected individuals caused by societal and corporate greed. By blaming fat people for the obesity epidemic, 'Operation Transformation' perpetuates a political and legislative status quo, whereby well-resourced multinational corporations seem to have a disproportionate influence on policy and nothing is done to address the environmental factors driving obesity in Ireland. While on the one hand it is important to engage in constructive dialogue with food retailers and other stakeholders, it was ironic to see a large supermarket chain being congratulated for playing a responsible part in dealing with the problem, while the show's leaders were berated for contributing to it. Many authorities in the field would consider that 'Operation Transformation' has this approach the wrong way around.

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